ODDS AND ENDS: A WHIRLWIND TOUR
"Do not search for truth, only cease to cherish opinions." 'What The Buddha Never Taught' Timothy Ward "The air was filled with a babble of voices as Prophets prophesied, Preachers preached, Messiahs announced various Millennia, Saviors summoned disciples, Archbishops proclaimed Armageddon, Fakirs mourned materialism, Priests prayed, Imans intoned, Rabbis railed and Druids droned." 'A Messiah At The End Of Time' Michael Moorcock
I have been traveling around Bali now for about one and a half months. Some days I feel this is the place to spend a lifetime. Other days ...... Well, the overwhelm of Kuta Beach with all those beer-guzzling surf-mad Australians blows open the door that South America lies behind, and a longing for the primitive life.
And once away from the beach scene things start becoming really weird! That's how it is some days.
Most people come to Bali for a hit of leisure in a tropical native paradise! Two weeks a year away from smog-congested freeway driving, the familiarity of day to day work, coming home to microwave dinners and boring sitcoms on the tube. It's beer for breakfast and late night jams at the Disco for the legions of Aussies invading Kuta.
I was looking for something a little different. Over the Edge!
I mean to say, all those ceremonies, all those rituals. All that Black Magic around here. It's just an everyday thing, you know?
And once outside of Kuta Beach all Hell breaks loose! It may be a non-stop go-for-broke party down at the beach, yet with the rest of the Island in a constant struggle between 'Good' and 'Evil' it may be safer slurping beer and pigging out on prawns with the Australians.
Damned if I do, damned if I don't!
I've had a number of experiences here though, off the beaten Gringo Trail. A few recounted at length. And on reflection, surprisingly more than enough to fill up such a short visit to a small Island. Guess that's just the way it is deep in the Mystic.
Indeed, all things considered, the gods of fortune have showered me with prosperity. Between Balinese midnight ceremonies and rituals, visits to local healers, a wicked High Priest, and leading a cross-cultural seminar, I've received more than a taste of life and mystical times here in the Islands.
Here are a few tales.
A Family Bar-B-Que?Even though the event is considered mundane to the Balinese, a cremation ceremony is quite spectacular. Actually, a celebration of life!
The Dead Spirits, attending through the presence of their corpses, are exhumed from a cemetery, where they may have been lying from three months to three years. The bodies, sheath-wrapped in white cotton looking all the world like some nouveau Egyptian mummy, are paraded down the avenue, carried by relatives and friends to their waiting carriages.
Even the Balinese are into the family album thing these days, shooting snapshots with their instant cameras of the relatives posing with the corpses for memories!
These carriages are like mobile homes that are specially built for the occasion. The tall wooden skyscrapers are outrageous affairs. Painted in swirls and splotches of fluorescent reds, blacks, oranges, many wrapped in silver or white or gold paper, they sit on log platforms, waiting to be carried by troops of men.
Bodies are lifted and moved into "Rooms at the Top" some twelve to fifteen feet off the ground. Men, clothed in their ceremonial sarongs, white shirts and headbands, clamber to the top of these castles wild-eyed and screaming, securing and watching over their charges, these corpses.
Crowds of men surrounding the platforms raise them up on heaving shoulders amidst great shouts and fanfare. Wobbling drunkenly, they nearly flip those castles till somehow they are tenuously balanced and can move.
As the Gamelan Orchestra, that constant band of brass bells and drums heard throughout the Island, begins a fierce beat, in a rush the platforms lurch forward, chaotically bound for the firepits, open caskets and final home for these Dead.
Before the final hill, the wooden skyscrapers are drunkenly danced, an erratic circling accompanied by yells, laughter, screams, bumping, arms and legs flaying.
A Balinese with his arm flung around me mentions that amidst this confusion those Spirits will have a hard time trying to occupy these bodies again.
Finally, the bodies are laid horizontal in colorful caskets, some painted with erotic or martial scenes, possibly reminiscent of the occupant's life. Reminds me of a few surf-mad T-Shirts I've seen on Venice Beach.
It's an amazing spectacle really. The emotional charge of all this celebration lifts the senses to peaks of excitement. Those still grieving won't be for long in this riotous atmosphere!
Wood and tinder are laid beneath the open caskets. Final rites are chanted, holy water is sprayed everywhere as family and friends crowd around the boxes for one last peek.
Fires are ignited, and corpses burn. Men tending the fires continue to feed logs and turn the bodies, just like roasting a pig, making sure that every scrap of skin and bone eventually are consumed in the flames. I look around expecting to find a Hot-Dog stand set up near the burning caskets.
While the Australians are sunning themselves burnt orange at the beach and getting one of those infamous Island Massages, the Balinese at the cremation here are happy, cheerful and gay. The event is an opportunity for party time! Lots of activities to take part in, or just be a spectator.
Uncle Nyoman and Grandfather Wyan are leaving this material world for good. No more worries, no more rent, no more bills, no more work. There are enough children to take their place.
Flashing back on solemn grave scenes in the West gives me a feeling of dislocation. Back there we walk solemnly between the evenly spaced Headstones and occasional mournful-looking trees. Everything in its proper place, and a proper grieving attitude is mandatory.
In the searing hot fires, the crackle of bone and ash is a skittish music above which occasional wails can be heard. Mostly good fun though as kids sift through the ash looking for some treasure. This is more like a celebration.
More Sacred Ceremonies follow on other days. The release of the Spirit and rites for the living such as the Tooth-Filing rituals. A chance for the village metalsmith to practice his dental skills.
Cutting down the incisors using a honing file, a symbol of removal from the animal kingdom to the higher station of humanity. Amazing how they can all laugh through the grinding! All to the ubiquitous background klanging music of Gamelan.
Large platters of foods and gifts are carried, balanced like some fine acrobat, on the heads of the women. Those colorful bundles look taller than the people carrying them! Hope the gods are happy with these, they are a feast! Just another day of joy in Paradise.
A Barong to the RescueIt's Barong time down in Bitra! The Barong is a legendary creature, a mythical beast with vestiges of human nature. Large woolly head covered in long white wild hair, tongue hanging down to the ground, the body an assortment of handspun silk fabric, jewelry and mystery.
I was in the neighborhood of Bitra one night and attended the consecration ceremony for the Barong of that small village at the temple, Pura Dalem. The Barong is the traditional protector of villages.
The Village's Barong has been stolen! Probably some beer-guzzling Australian wanting a trophy for his bedroom. An ominous time has enveloped the people in an air of fear and insecurity.
Men won't work, women are afraid to let their children out of the house. Not a good time to buy that new car or even a lottery ticket for that matter!
The whole village is vulnerable to attack by Black Magic and other sorcerous calamities.
Only the inauguration of a new protector will restore hope. The consecration of their guardian will bring renewed security and safety to the people. They can sleep in serenity once again.
It's an all-night party full of music, magic and mystery. A Priest sits cross-legged on a dais, facing the Barong. The Spirit Beast is flanked by two carved wooden apostles, its wild-animal-faced guardian attendants.
Villagers are sitting on the hard dirt ground, packed together for chants, others walking about in a daze, still others tranced out by the Gamelan Orchestra, their bodies taken over by some Deity in reverie.
Between the Priest and the Barong, a horn's plenty of offerings and gifts continues to pile up in mountainous proportions as villagers pass by in line to deposit their donations.
Baskets of straw and banana leaves laden with fruits, cooked whole duck, incense, candles and mystical figurines carved from branches or wrapped, twisted shaped emblems from leaves and wood.
That ancient Priest, sitting cross-legged, wearing his blindingly white ceremonial sarong, necklaces of beads, silver, leather hanging like vines around his neck.
Adorned in feathers and shiny regalia crossing his bare chest, silver and gold ear crowns, like caps covering the lobes and rims of his ears. Gray thick bushy eyebrows set a stern expression on the old solemn face.
His hands play a continuous dance of Mudra and Spell Weaving. Chants, invocations and blessings spill from his lips as Holy Water cascades like silver bubbles over the offerings from a long silver wand, dipped and tossed.
The air is shimmering electric around the altar, a vibrant contrast to the stark blackness just outside the temple walls. This is consecrated ground and Spirit guardians are fiercely observant. Whatever demonic evil is trying to get in, won't.
It's a stark contrast to the solemnity of all those Churches back home, with their droning hymns and pews full of fervently praying faithful. Even the Holy Rollers down south can't touch the Trance Wizards.
The Shamanic Wisdom, acknowledgment of the elements, earth, fire, water reaffirmed in every drop, reflected in every candle. Are the altars planted throughout the temple courtyard replete with stone carved idols Animistic, Shamanic, or simply Hindu Pantheism?
Most of the natives, whether dancing or chanting have entered an altered state. They are deep into reverie, some gyrating wildly, as the Barong attains birth as a powerful Spirit Guardian. The village will be safe once again.
Spirit, mystery, and The Other is felt in a swirl of sensual imagery. It's tangible, palpable and weird.
A Visit to the Bone CruncherNyoman Jiwa is a Dukun, a Balian, a Shaman. He lives in Bangli, outside Gianyar. His home, a compound of buildings in a residential neighborhood looks from the outside little different from his neighbors.
One of the buildings, just a long room set on concrete base, a large gilded carved wooden, is his temple and office. Inside, benches, chairs, an elaborate altar for the Gods. There is the requisite Idol of Saraswati, of course, and lots of flowers, incense, etc.
Mid-to-late fifties, the Shaman is a thin, tight muscular man. His face, lined and creased, a blend of studious inquiry, seriousness and compassion. Mostly his mouth remains closed.
When he smiles, white even teeth. His hands have the timbre of knowledge, strength, work. Veins erupting through defined muscle in a sinewy river-like flow.
This is my second visit to Nyoman Jiwa. Brought here by my friend, Doctor Suryani. She, a Western-trained psychiatrist, refers some patients to this Shaman for healing from time to time.
The Balian welcomes us and beckons me to enter his temple. I sit on the chair behind him as we face the altar. I have brought an offering. The Balian prepares to bless it, and curry the God's favor for this healing.
He has diagnosed me as having an energy imbalance, and low energy on the left side of my body. He has removed blockages in my shoulder and neck, yet there is a major channel still to be released in my leg. After my last session with him, I'm hoping not to end up cripple.
The chanting begins, a prayer to Hyang Widi, the Supreme God, for power and curing energy. Holy water is captured on flower petals, then dipped on the altars, an offering. Incense fills the room in sweetness.
He comes over to me, a bowl of Holy water in one hand, flower in another and begins to bathe me, starting at the crown.
Placing his left fist, blade down on my crown, my Fontanel, he blows through the opening at the top, this to open my crown Chakra. It strikes me that this is a universal procedure as I reflect on other lands, other Shamans using the same technique!
Grasping my neck at the back, his firm right hand manipulating muscle and tissue, then bearing down on my shoulders, locating Meridian Points, applying pressure. This is no ordinary massage!
Through each arm at the elbow, he blows energy through, locating, then pressing into deep spots. I don't know what he is doing, yet can feel rushes through my body. Again, at my mid-section, the Hara, pressure. Now, the torso.
Like a technician he moves through my body. Pulling here, blowing, applying pressure, balancing. His foot, heel, stomps down on mine. There is an Elephant standing on me!
Just breathe into it. It will be alright!
Then, another heel into the side of my knee. That left knee, the first visit, I felt the world explode. An eruption in my knee, then moving through-out my body. Unendurable. It is the reason I am here today, again.
As he raises his leg to bear down on my knee again, I flinch in anticipation. I've been trained and my body remembers that first encounter with his foot.
Now, this time is amazingly different. He applies the same weight and pressure, even more so. There is a tenderness in my kneecap yet not that paralyzing pain as before.
Channels are open, cleared. Standing now, I feel a surging of energy through me. I feel more awake, aware. Somehow, more alive! In some indefinable way, the Shaman has worked his trade, his magic. This Healer is definitely Hands-On!
A Madman in DragDoctor Suryani has set up a meeting with the High Priest of Ubud. What has this got to do with the Shamanic world? This is Organized Religion. Are there healing rites, calling in spirits?
What is the relationship between a High Priest to the Balians on this Island? I am looking for Shamans and Suryani thinks it's a good idea to meet this Priest! Might as well get a glimpse of the other side!
I feel somewhat lost, yet, here on Bali, all things are connected.
Driving up from Denpasar, I have a certain uneasiness in my throat like a fine chicken bone that won't go down. Fantasies float about my imagination as to his home, his life and his presence. "This is 'THE High Priest' on this Island, for Christ's Sake!"
Does he live in an immaculate castle? Are there servants at his beck and call? I imagine clouds of sweet incense wafting throughout the grounds and floating from every room. Immaculate carvings of deities abounding. Virgin Temple Girls awaiting the summons of their master.
Approaching the vicinity of Ubud, rice fields abounding, bougainvillea of all shades and colors drape leisurely from branches wrapped around fences. Scores of other bright flowers adorn the sides of roads like psychedelic signposts.
We turn onto a narrow dirt street, virtually an alley, then stop beside an old wood and stone doorway, unmarked and ancient. Stepping through the portal, I send a chicken scurrying, and am warned by a barking dog baring his teeth.
The yard is a maze of unkempt garden, bent trees, dirt, trash, ground-pecking chickens and underfed roaming dogs. At least there aren't any frenzied monkeys jumping about.
Following Suryani through this tangle we wander haphazardly about seeking the path. Finally coming to daylight as we cross into the main compound.
A group of one and two bedroom buildings, dark stone and wood stand before me in a semi-circular construction. Hanging from the roofs, around the eaves, swinging cages filled with birds. Parrots, doves, pigeons, and more.
Birds of every shape and size incarcerated in those small bamboo cages. Chirp's and coo's fill the air. This must be a bird sanctuary, not the home of the Islands holiest Holy!
Here comes an old woman to greet us. The Priest's wife. She and his son guide us to the outside receiving hall of the house and temple where we sit and wait. I am given tea, and told the High Priest is out checking his fields and will return shortly.
Three quarters of an hour later, the old man, gray haired, wearing sarong, slandong, and a crisply ironed cotton shirt arrives.
He pays no notice of us, sits at the other end of the entrance-way, slowly and meticulously opens an old wooden box and brings out Betel leaves to chew.
Taking time with the preparation, placing the leaves and fixings under his gums, the Priest is in no hurry. He barely notices us.
I came in with this attitude of respect and am now experiencing a tinge of embarrassment and impatience for not being acknowledged. An uneasy silence permeates the air as the Priest continues to chew and ignore. Is this the way High Priests are in the World? Above everybody?
He finally shifts himself to sit closer to us, yet not so near. Still wanting to be respectful, I offer greetings and gratitude for the audience. Suryani translates.
The old man just nods, chewing his leaves, slight red spittle drooling on his lips, a solemn look in his eyes.
What are we here for? The subject of meditation arises, as this seems to be the 'driving force' in his life. I want spirits, demons, trances and ecstasies. He wants meditation! Suryani, a meditator is sitting serenely.
How does meditation manifest in his life? What is the aim, what benefit does he receive? What form of meditation does he practice?
Sitting in a full-lotus position, legs crossed, back straight like an iron rod, the Priest talks slowly, explaining in High Balinese, as Suryani translates. He won't even relax enough to use the common language.
He is speaking in what my friend describes as the 'High Tongue' as he describes the meditative posture, the time most appropriate, early morning, breath control.
He mentions when tears come to his eyes, these are healing tears, magic water, and can be used to cure people. I am unprepared as he asks me to describe my form of meditation.
Taking a breath, sitting half-lotus, arms resting at my knees, palms up, closing my eyes I begin describing my experience in a kind of Gestalt way.
Noticing my awarenesses, physical sensations. The feel of my body, noticing sound, noticing touch, noticing breath. Now I follow this breath to a deeper level, my body slows down. I am falling in, and able to illustrate an internal experience of blankness and open awareness with silence.
And somewhere in that blankness there is something more. An unusual presence, perhaps, that I tune out, I disregard in my consciousness.
As I slowly open my eyes, the Priest staring at me, stern, begins to correct me.
"You do not meditate right! This is not the Way!" He raves about my faults.
Fully into derision, the Priest drones on as I listen dispassionately. As he criticizes my breathing, my posture, even instructing on what I am supposed to experience!
A slow burning coal of anger begins burning around my solar plexus and I am becoming even more curious about this Priest who is exhibiting altogether anti-social behavior.
Doctor Suryani requests he observe her meditation. He shifts his position and his gaze toward her, as she begins.
Suryani, rather than describing her method, begins a rhythmical breathing, eyes closed, and is slowly falling into an altered state. There exists a fragile silence in the air, and in that silence, tension!
The Priest's gaze is unwavering. His face set like stone. Small beady eyes unblinking, body tight. The sun darkens in the sky, a shadow falls across stone. A chill is suddenly felt, arising from nowhere.
Now and then like a rippling wave there appears rapid flutterings on the eyelids of my friend, Suryani. A brief contortion of concern and altogether something else crosses her countenance.
There is this odd thought in the back of my mind that we came here to discuss Native spirituality, perhaps participate in a ritual. Instead we have landed in a meditation examination. Or something else.
Settling down, her face regains composure. After fifteen minutes, she re-emerges with a smile, briefly. The Priest begins his criticism.
Our time with the High Priest comes to conclusion. He makes a final offer, if we return, to perform a ritual blessing. I tell him our time is limited, that it may be possible, and we take our leave. In the car, the rest of the story unfolds!
Suryani is flushed. She is excited, confused and jittery as she begins to talk. This meeting is not all that it seems on the surface!
During her meditation, Suryani is psychically attacked!
She relates feeling the presence of the High Priest. He attempts to invade her, to disrupt her concentration, to overwhelm her with his power! An energetic struggle ensues at a level above the physical, on another plane. It is a competition of power against power.
Suryani is surprised at how it started. She does not understand the reason. There was no rational explanation for the assault! She relates how she set up psychic defenses deep in her meditation and repelled him. She is proud of her own power.
I am wondering, as we approach Denpasar, how a 'Man of God', a representative of people to the Deities, can be so egocentrically abusive and perhaps under that aura of spiritual armor, be so manifestly and unconsciously insecure.
A flash of lightening and a remembrance of Don Celso that Shaman in Quito. A dreaded night when he prophesied despair and doom that eventually came to pass.
Here and NowAfter a brief jaunt to Singapore to renew Visas, my return to Bali comes with a commitment for my partner and I to lead a workshop. Doctor Suryani is interested in the types of Awareness Practices we use in America and has asked us to give speeches to a group of Indonesians who regularly practice meditation. I suggest that doing is better than talking.
Just outside a traditional village, on the southern coast of Bali at the Ocean's edge Suryani has a large bungalow. Open, spacious, its large living room is bounded by walls of glass opening out to the world.
An airy arena, a perfect spot to accommodate the thirty Indonesians gathered early for what becomes a day of exploration.
We begin with a circle. Introductions and brief explanations of why we are here. As I look around the room, a group of mostly men, middle-aged and older, I see three women.
Even with assurances from Suryani, I soon realize that most have limited speaking knowledge of English. I feel a little nervous, nevertheless, curious as to the nature of diverse experience in an inter-cultural forum.
My partner begins with a slow warm-up. The group is led in a standing exercise to awaken parts of the body. Arms, legs, head, torso. Attention is delicately directed toward awareness of physical sensation. A room full of wrists spinning and knees rotating.
Music begins. A tribal rhythm. Gabriel Roth, the Priestess of Dance, Shaman of Movement. Slowly, bodies begin to meld, form in harmonic movement. Walking, shaking, vibrating, stillness. Each unique, each different.
Each body responds to its own rhythms, its own freedoms, its own constraints.
And now, movement, walking, contact with the World, and others. Some bodies active, some passive. The bodies indicate who is introspective, who is out-going, who is willing to make contact.
This is novel for these Balinese who have always danced their way into trance, and have never used their bodies for other means of communication. Many are shy, feeling their way around the room, and each other as they risk exposure among their companions.
Dance is freeform now, a celebration and with that, new awareness. The field is built through stages as each body encounters a new movement through rhythm, through music, and life. Finally, stillness and silence.
A short break, we regroup in the circle. A check-in with the group, how is everyone feeling, what is the nature of their experience.
Now, a different approach. Using communication to describe an internal experience. This part will be didactic experience. An example is given.
The group separates into pairs. As they face each other, instructions are provided. We begin with simple awareness. 'Now I am aware of ........' each partner relates to the other.
Turns taken, timed in a timeless way. Some can go deep, others remain near the surface, each receives and gives what they are capable of. A few of the Balinese are skittish. Titters of laughter erupt around the room.
'Who am I?', 'Who am I like, Mother or Father?' A series of inquiries, perhaps new understandings. Finally, an ending. Enough for today.
We come together in the circle for the last time. each relates their experience. This is certainly not 'meditation' as most know it here. Yet, for some, surprisingly effective.
The most enthusiastic are the healers, the Balians in the group, relating their experience and enjoyment through discovery. I feel grateful for this opportunity, for this powerful cultural experience, and am relieved now that it is over!
Shadow Crossings and ContinuationIt's a funny thing. Caught up in the pursuit, in the focusing and at times, not noticing the ground for the shit.
Not realizing it at the time, those days in Bali began a shift in focus and direction. Unconsciously. I was 'going through changes', a slow gradual letting go of an old way of being and old understandings. A Shadow Crossing.
My only sense was that I was losing sight of my intention. The doors that seemed to open so effortlessly for me before had become more difficult to find. Although there is extensive Shamanic activity in Asia, I did not seem to have the profound experiences that were happening in South America.
Frustrating and more than a little uncomfortable, my internal process was veiled by the seemingly never ending external play that is Bali. The beach scene on Kuta with all the craziness of a twenty-four hour carnival was as surreal as the cremation celebrations.
None of it made sense! Maybe, after all, everything is just meaningless, a pointless existence. And I did not seem to care.
Yet there was an uneasiness, having lost my ground, I was on the precipice, jumping off into altogether something different. In the middle of the abyss, with no ropes and hooks for support, the only thing to do is to keep going. Where? Just wandering?
In a way, life had become meaningless. Just an absurd dance of swinging helter-skelter from one mad experience to the next irrational encounter. All possessing a peculiar sameness.
Novel, yes, but at the same time realizing that the abundance of novelty can indicate a distraction that is infinitely seductive.
This shift later materialized in Thailand at the unexpected site of a forest monastery. I did not even suspect.
After more travel in villages around Bali, a week's relaxation at Lovina beach near Singaraja, I am on my way to the Island of Sulawesi. I feel full if not a bit overwhelmed, still needing time to integrate all that I have witnessed and explored. I am curious about the celebrated Death rituals of a tribe known as Toraja. My next destination.
Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman
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